Identity theft occurs when an individual uses the personal information of another without their knowledge or permission. Personal information can include, but is not limited to, an individual’s:

  • Name;
  • Identification;
  • Address;
  • Social Security number;
  • Bank account information; and/or
  • Credit cards.

A criminal engaging in identity theft uses this information to commit fraud or other crimes. Identity theft can be a state and federal crime. The State of California has an e-crime unit devoted to stopping internet crimes.

The United States Department of Justice defines identity theft as all crimes that involve obtaining and using someone else’s personal data through fraud or deception for economic gain. Identity theft can occur in different ways, including in public places and through technology.

If an individual becomes a victim of identity theft, it can have serious consequences. It can be difficult to provide proof that an individual did not make a purchase or file false taxes. In some cases, an individual can even have a criminal record as the result of an identity thief using their personal information. It is important to be careful when providing personal data in any setting.

Examples of ways identity theft cases may occur include:

  • Mail theft – A criminal steals mail from the mailbox including credit card offers and bank statements;
  • Robbery – A criminal takes someone’s wallet which usually includes personal information such as a driver’s license and credit cards;
  • Dumpster diving – A criminal goes through trash to find documents containing personal information and/or account numbers;
  • Computer fraud – A criminal hacks into computer systems and taking personal information; and/or
  • Phishing – A criminal scams information from victims by pretending to be a legitimate business person, such as an employer conducting a job interview.

How Does California Define Data and Identity Theft?

Identity theft in California is defined as an individual stealing a personal identity or data from another individual either online or offline with the intent to use it in an unlawful way. Data includes that information that is personal to each individual.

What is Considered as Personal Data?

Personal data includes information such as an individual’s:

  • Name;
  • Birth date;
  • Address;
  • Telephone number;
  • Social Security Number;
  • Health insurance information;
  • Passport information;
  • Birth certificate;
  • Death certificate;
  • Credit card numbers; and/or
  • Bank account numbers.

If an identity theft criminal obtains this information they may be able to do multiple things. They can open a credit card, apply for services, apply for loans, commit crimes, and many other unlawful activities.

How Can I Protect Personal Data?

An individual can protect personal data by safeguarding their personal information and documents. Crucial documents include bank statements and credit card information. An individual can develop habits to help protect their data, including:

  • Put any documents containing personal information in a paper shredder instead of the garbage can;
  • Ask a trusted family member or other individual to get mail when a person is out of town;
  • Notify the post office if a person changes their address;
  • Cancel lost or stolen credit cards immediately;
  • Keep debit and credit cards in a safe place where they will not be stolen;
  • Use antivirus software on the home computer;
  • Use a password or passcode on any electronic device that contains personal information and may be stolen; and/or
  • Only communicate personal information through a secure and trusted website, not by email.

What Does “Unlawful Purpose” Refer To?

Unlawful purpose refers to an attempt to obtain or successfully obtaining something of value in order to break the law. For example, obtaining someone’s personal information in order to collect a tax refund.

Is Identity Theft a Felony or Misdemeanor in California?

Identity theft in California is considered a wobbler crime. It can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the facts and circumstances of the case. The criminal penalties for identity and data theft in California will depend on how the crime is charged.

If the crime is charged as a misdemeanor, a convicted defendant can face up to a year in jail and up to $1,000.00 in fines. If convicted of a felony, a defendant can face up to three years in jail and up to a $10,000.00 fine.

Is Elder Identity Theft a Different Crime in California?

No, elder identity theft is handled the same as identify theft in California. Elder identity theft occurs when a criminal obtains the personal information of an elderly individual or senior citizen. The criminals commit the same types of crimes listed above with the information. They may, however, have access to other things such as social security checks or retirement checks.

Elderly individuals are often common targets for identity theft. Many times, the identity thief is someone they know or a family member they have placed trust in. Many older individuals have saved considerable amounts of money or have gathered assets over their lifespan. They may have conditions such as alzheimer’s or dementia which prevents them from making sound financial decisions. Many older Americans are unfamiliar with modern credit arrangements and online banking.

What Steps Should be Taken for a Possible Stolen Identity?

The first step is to create better habits to protect your information from being taken in the first palace. However, it does happen even when someone is careful. Should an individual believe their information has been stolen, they should alert law enforcement. If evidence is present, it will be provided to the District Attorney’s Office for prosecution.

A possible victim should immediately contact all banks and credit card companies to inform them of possible theft. Any credit or debit cards should be cancelled. These accounts can also be frozen if needed. Identity theft can be reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as well.

Can a Civil Lawsuit be Filed Against an Identity Thief?

Yes, an identity theft victim can file a civil lawsuit for damages incurred as a result of the theft. An identity theft victim may be able to collect or receive:

Compensatory damages are the type of damages most commonly awarded. These damages are meant to cover financial losses incurred as a result of the identity theft.

Punitive damages are rarely awarded in these types of cases. They include additional monetary compensation and are intended to punish and deter the criminal from similar future crimes.

Emotional distress damages may be available to an identity theft victim who suffered emotional distress. Emotional distress may include anxiety and/or depression. These damages are often difficult to obtain.

An injunction is an order from the court that requires an individual to refrain from an action or activity. In identity theft cases, a court may order an apology from the criminal, order the criminal to notify other individuals about potential data exposure and to release the victim from financial liability they incurred due to the theft.

Should I Consult A Lawyer Regarding My Identity Theft Charge?

Yes, it is important to have an identity theft attorney. They can help you navigate the complex issues that arise from identity theft. If you are charged with identity theft, an attorney can determine what defenses, if any, are available to you and can represent you in court. An identity theft conviction can have long-lasting consequences, especially if it is charged as a felony.

If you believe you are the victim of identity theft, an attorney can help you communicate with all parties. They will protect your rights and help to reverse damage done by an identity thief. An identity theft attorney can determine if you are able to file a civil lawsuit for damages. A victim may be entitled to damages discussed above.